A PGA for Plucky Paul


Looking at the Paul Azinger of 2002, who knows what might have transpired in the 10 years since 1993 if he been blessed with perfect health to go with his near-perfect golf game? In 1993 he won a major championship, outlasting the greatest players in the game in the process. The intervening years, however, he has been a changed person, thrilled at merely living, contented now just to be able to play.
The year 1993 was so dramatic. Azinger was easily one of the top five players in golf. When the final major of the year was unfolding, though, Azinger was a deeply concerned man. You see, that was a championship that was won with cancer as a companion. Would he have won several more had cancer not intervened? What records would he have set? What glowing tributes would have been written had not ugly lymphoma so cruelly interrupted?
Instead of being one of the top five players in the game over the past decade, Azinger settled down into one of perhaps the top 50. He has been good, but not great. The disease robbed him of his greatness. From the peak of his greatest triumph ' winning the championship at Inverness ' came the depths of his greatest challenge: beating cancer.
Underneath his collarbone, it first began sending out an irritating little message at the 93 U.S. Open ' Somethings wrong, it whispered. It became much louder at the PGA, but that was the time for Azinger to compete, to hang in there and win the trophy. That was the time he defeated Greg Norman in a playoff. That was the time Paul Azinger outlasted all the games greats, standing alone until the end as the sole survivor.
Making it all the more meaningful was the fact that this was a championship when all the games top players played like champions. Nick Faldo challenged until the very end. Tom Watson challenged on the final day. Vijay Singh challenged, as did Norman, Lanny Wadkins, Scott Simpson and Bob Estes. It looked like football game and there was a loose ball on the ground. Everyone tried to pick it up, but only one would actually do it ' Azinger.
Azinger plodded along in neutral the first nine holes Sunday while everyone else was already in gear. He started the day only one behind, but by the turn, he was three back.
Estes took possession of the lead after he birdied the eighth, but he bogeyed the 10th from a fairway bunker and 11th after missing the green long. Next, Faldo looked like he had it. He was in command until the 15th, where he barely saved a par, and the 16th, where he missed a two-foot birdie putt for a par. That, as it turned out, kept him out of the playoff.
Wadkins had his chances but couldnt come back from a costly double bogey at No. 14. Watsons putter ' what else? ' kept him from grabbing the title. Azinger, meanwhile, was playing safety-valve golf the whole front nine and not making much of anything happen. Then he decided that if he was going to have a chance to win this tournament, he had better start taking chances.
After the ninth hole, said Azinger, I tried to be more aggressive. But there was no indication Id get that hot. It just happened.
Starting at the 12th hole, Azinger made three consecutive birdies. At 12, he lobbed a 9-iron to 12 feet. At the par-5 13th, he got up-and-down from a greenside bunker. At 14, he finally tied Norman and Faldo for the lead by knocking an 8-iron to seven feet, then sinking the birdie putt.
Norman, playing behind Azinger, retook the lead with a birdie at the 16th. But Azinger battled back on 17 with a 9-iron to five feet and another birdie.
Im a nervous person, said Azinger. Thats my deal. I walk fast. Im jumpy. But it doesnt mean I cant hit decent shots under pressure.
It could well have ended on the 72nd hole when Norman lined up a 20-foot birdie putt, then watched in dismay as it barely curled outside the cup. And a nearly identical putt occurred on the first playoff hole, again the 18th hole on the course. This time the ball actually caught an edge of the cup and spun out.
Two feet from the cup, there was no doubt in my mind that it was in, said Azinger.
It wasnt in, though, and now came the second playoff hole, the short 10th. Normans approach was a little long, about 20 feet past the cup. Azingers approach with a sand wedge stopped just eight feet away.
Norman, thinking Azinger would probably hole his putt, tried to die his effort right in the hole. It stopped four slippery feet short of the target. Azinger then putted for birdie, but it missed when it caught the right lip of the hole and caromed out.
Now it was up to Norman to keep the playoff alive. He stroked the putt firmly, but there was just enough for the ball to catch an edge and stay out. Azinger had won.
Im in a daze, said Norman. I lost to a great player Im maybe down about that first playoff hole putt. I gave it a good run. It was one of those perfect putts that just didnt go in. I got painted, as we say.
Azinger was hugely relieved. Gone was the label of best player to have never won a major. Ahead, it seemed, were many more majors. He had just finished third in the U.S. Open that year, had won two other tournaments, in fact.
And then cancer. Azinger revealed later that Dr. Frank Jobe had called the Friday night of the PGA, telling Zinger of the urgency to have a biopsy done of the right shoulder. Jobe had noticed a disturbing dark mass under the shoulder blade, and he feared the worst.
If it had been my left shoulder, I could never have played a hole of golf, Azinger said. I could swing a golf club because my right elbow is close to my side in the swing.
He waited two months to have the biopsy done and got the dreaded news early in December. The dark mass was malignant. He started chemotherapy right away, put away the golf career, and thought of nothing but living.
Norman later said that, knowing Azinger had the dreaded disease, it was much better that he won the playoff. Azinger himself was a much different person when he returned.
I realize how much my life has changed since I had cancer, Azinger said when he returned to the PGA the next year. And I understand now that I have the opportunity to be an inspiration to a lot of people who are fighting the disease, and throughout my whole cancer period, I had a wonderful prognosis. And I know a lot of people dont have the same hope that I had.
And if I can inspire them by just being out there, then thats just the way it has to be. Its a new calling almost, and Im willing to take that on. I dont have a problem with that.
Azinger did come back and win again ' at the 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii. He has even been chosen to Curtis Stranges Ryder Cup team of 2001. He has been a consistent player, if not the flashy fellow who won 11 times in six years leading up to the PGA in 93.
Paul Azinger was the PGA champion. But far more important, he is alive. Golf will always occupy a spot several notches lower, but he has a title that no one else could claim - the 1993 PGA Championship.